LAS VEGAS – The Republican Party's nascent 2024 class, emboldened as ever, openly cast Donald Trump as "a loser” over and over on Friday as they courted donors and activists fretting about the GOP's future under the former president's leadership.
Trump's vocal critics included current and former Republican governors, members of his own Cabinet and major donors who gathered along the Las Vegas strip for what organizers described as the unofficial beginning of the next presidential primary season. It was a remarkable display of defiance for a party defined almost wholly by its allegiance to Trump for the past six years.
“Maybe there’s a little blood in the water and the sharks are circling,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican presidential prospect himself and frequent Trump critic said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to this point before.”
The gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting, which began Friday, comes just days after Trump became the first candidate to formally launch a 2024 campaign. His allies hoped his early announcement might ward off serious primary challenges, but several potential candidates said that’s not likely after Trump loyalists lost midterm contests last week in battleground states from Arizona to Pennsylvania. His political standing within the GOP, already weakening, plummeted further.
Ahead of his Friday night address, Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State under Trump, mocked one of his former boss' slogans: “We were told we’d get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing.”
“Personality, celebrity just aren’t going to get it done," he said later from the ballroom stage.
Trump is scheduled to address the weekend gathering by video conference on Saturday. The vast majority of the high-profile Republican officials considering a 2024 White House bid appeared in person the two-day conference, which included a series of private donor meetings and public speeches.
The program featured DeSantis, a leading Trump rival, and Pence, whom Trump blames for not overturning the 2020 election. Other speakers included Hogan, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another potential 2024 contender, canceled his appearance after a Sunday shooting at the University of Virginia that left three dead.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who could become the House speaker when Republicans take over in January, is also scheduled.
There seemed to be little sympathy for Trump's latest legal challenges.
Hours before Friday's opening dinner, Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the presence of classified documents at Trump’s Florida estate as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
Sununu, the New Hampshire governor who easily won reelection last week, said there was no sign that his party would rally to Trump's defense this time.
“Those are his issues to sort out,” Sununu said. “Everyone’s gonna sit back and watch the show. And that’s not just his supporters — that’s his money, that’s donors, that’s fundraisers,” said the Republican governor, who easily won reelection last week. “We're just moving on.”
With a loyal base of support among rank-and-file voters and a sprawling fundraising operation featuring small-dollar contributions, Trump does not need major donors or party leaders to reach for the GOP nomination a third time. But unwillingness by big-money Republicans to commit to him — at least, for now — could make his path back to the White House more difficult.
There was little sign of enthusiasm for Trump's 2024 presidential aspirations in the hallways and conference rooms of the weekend gathering. At Friday night's dinner, organizers offered attendees yarmulkes bearing Trump's name, but there were few takers.
That's even as Jewish Republicans continued to heap praise on Trump's commitment to Israel while in the White House.
“There’s no question that what President Trump accomplished over his four years in terms of strengthening the the U.S.-Israel relationship was unparalleled. He was the most pro-Israel president ever,” said Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition's executive director.
But that may not be enough to win over the coalition's leading donors this time.
“For a lot of people who are attending this conference, this is about the future,” Brooks said. “And for some of them, President Trump may be their answer. For others, they’re interested in what others have to say.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaned into Trump's political failures during a private dinner with the group's leading donors on Thursday. In a subsequent interview, he did not back down.
“In my view, he’s now a loser. He’s an electoral loser,” said Christie, another 2024 prospect. “You look at a general electorate, I don’t think there’s a Democrat he can beat because he’s now toxic to suburban voters on a personal level, and he’s earned it.”
The annual event is playing out at the Las Vegas Strip's Venetian Hotel in a nod to the Republican Jewish Coalition's longtime benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate who died last year. His wife Miriam Adelson remains a fundraising force within the GOP, though her level of giving in the recent midterm election, which exceeded $20 million, was somewhat scaled back.
The 76-year-old Israeli-born Miriam Adelson “is staying neutral” in the GOP's 2024 presidential primary, according to the family's longtime political gatekeeper Andy Abboud.
She is not alone.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress and heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, backed Trump's previous campaigns but has no plans to support him in 2024, according to a Lauder spokesman.
Longtime Trump backer Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group investment firm, told Axios this week that he would back someone from a “new generation” of Republicans. Kenneth C. Griffin, the hedge-fund billionaire, is already openly backing DeSantis.
On Friday, aerospace CEO Phillip Friedman described himself as a “big Trump supporter,” but said he's open to listening to others moving forward.
“There’s a couple other people who have his policies but don’t have the baggage," Friedman said of Trump.
In his keynote address, Pence focused largely on the Trump administration's accomplishments, but included a few indirect jabs at the former president.
“To win the future," Pence said, “we as Republicans and elected leaders must do more than criticize and complain.”
He was more direct i n an interview this week.
“I think we will have better choices in 2024,” Pence told The Associated Press. “And I’m very confident that Republican primary voters will choose wisely.”
AP writer Michelle Price in New York contributed.